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What should take priority, law enforcement or low taxes?

Johnson City Press • Jun 3, 2018 at 7:18 PM

It seems like every year, a sheriff in our area threatens to file suit against his county commission to force a budget increase for line items he says are statutorily mandated.

Last year, it was Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, and if things keep going the way they’re going in this year’s budget cycle, he might get the lawyers involved again.

As Press reporter Sue Legg wrote last week, Hensley asked for a $1.3 million increase to his budget this year, a number that even surprised him, but he said he needed it, nonetheless.

Hensley’s budget request for 2018-19 included pay and benefits for seven new officers, a new secretary and seven part-time jailers he wants to make full-time.

With an increased demand for security for festivals, more civil process and warrants to be served and stricter security requirements at the courthouse, adding more employees and bumping existing officers’ pay is a must, he said. Turnover is high at the department, as officers jump to other area departments with better pay and benefits, and the need to make the positions competitive is strong.

Then there’s the fence — or lack of one — that almost drove Hensley to litigation last year. The sheriff dropped his lawsuit against the county for alleged underfunding of public safety mandates last year when commissioners agreed to repair a damaged fence around the impound lot at the jail annex, but the estimates for the work came back higher than the commissioners were willing to pay. Now, the fence is basically nonexistent, and Hensley says it’s a cost that cannot be put off another year.

Hensley’s not the first lawman to get a judge involved in his fight for more funding.

Last year, Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable reached a settlement in a 2-year-old lawsuit the sheriff filed seeking more funding for his department. According to the Kingsport Times News, in the settlement the county agreed to fund a 5 percent raise, 18 new positions and a $150,000 discretionary fund.

Before Anderson, Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes won a similar suit forcing the county to fund new officers’ positions and to build a new jail.

It seems the demands for law enforcement and security grow more expensive each year, but the available cash — generated mostly by property taxes — can’t keep up.

That’s why we want to hear from you. What should take priority, law enforcement or low taxes? What should be done when a sheriff’s department’s needs outpace its funding?

Send your comments to mailbag@johnsoncitypress.com. Please include your name, telephone number and address for verification. Letters may be no longer than 300 words and will be edited for grammar, style and length.

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